Monday, July 28, 2008

Optimal Span - Why YOU Should Care

Howard agreed to do his new Topics on Biosemiotics and Language (with some help from Joel's Topic on Memory) with the expectation I would do one on Optimal Span. He was Chairman of my PhD Committee. My dissertation, Hierarchy Theory: Some Common Properties of Competitively-Selected Systems, centered on Optimal Span. (Howard is the author of an excellent book Hierarchy Theory - The Challenge of Complex Systems.)

Why should you care and how does this affect you?

Most obviously, it affects your employment experiences, but also (according to my thesis) the hierarchical structure of things from your ability to discriminate sights and sounds and tastes to written language to how proteins, RNA, and DNA fold! As recenty as 2006 a Dutch scholar I do not know wrote Organizational Structures for Dealing with Complexity and cites my PhD dissertation and a draft paper I wrote for my students at U. Maryland (see Bart A. Meijer, pages 6, 104, 106, 107 and 204).


Management experts have long recommended that Management Span of Control be in the range of five or six for employees whose work requires considerable interaction. That's why corporate hierarchies usually have around six employees (sometimes a few more than six) in each first-level department and around five (sometimes a bit less) first-level departments reporting to the next level up and so on. (If the lowest level consists of service-type employees, there may be a dozen or two or more in a department, but there will usually be one or more foremen or team leaders, etc.)

The above diagram shows three different ways you might organize 49 workers. In (A) you have ONE manager and 48 workers, which is a BROAD hierarchy. Management experts would say a Management Span of Control of 48 is way too much for anyone to handle! In (B) you have THIRTEEN managers in a three-level management hierarchy and only 36 workers, which is a TALL hierarchy with an average Management Span of Control of only 3.3. Management experts would say this is way too inefficient with too many managers! In (C) you have SEVEN managers and 42 workers in a MODERATE hierarchy with an average Management Span of Control of about 6.5. Management experts would say this is about right for most organizations where the workers have to interact with each other. Optimal Span theory supports this common-sense belief!


George A Miller wrote a classic paper in 1956 The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information that showed that human senses of sight, sound, and taste were generally limited to five to nine gradations that could be reliably distinguished. Miller's paper begins as follows:

My problem is that I have been persecuted by an integer [7 +/- 2]. For seven years this number has followed me around, has intruded in my most private data, and has assaulted me from the pages of our most public journals. This number assumes a variety of disguises, being sometimes a little larger and sometimes a little smaller than usual, but never changing so much as to be unrecognizable. The persistence with which this number plagues me is far more than a random accident. There is, to quote a famous senator, a design behind it, some pattern governing its appearances. Either there really is something unusual about the number or else I am suffering from delusions of persecution.
Miller's paper is well worth reading!


Miller's number also pursued me until I caught it. I showed, as part of my PhD research, that, based on empirical data from varied domains, the optimal span for virtually all hierarchical structures falls into Miller's range, five to nine. Using Shannon's information theory, I also showed that maximum intricacy is obtained when: The Span (optimal) for single-dimensional structures is, So = 1 + 2e = 6.4 (where e is the natural number, 2.71828459). My "magical number" is not the integer 7, but 6.4, a more precise rendition of Miller's number!

Hierarchy and Complexity

As M. Mitchell Waldrop observes:

[The] hierarchical, building-block structure of things is as commonplace as air. (Complexity - The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos, Touchstone, 1992.)

Howard H. Pattee, in his seminal book that I mentioned above, was one of the early researchers in hierarchy theory and he personally challenged me to find:

a simple theory of very complex, evolving systems [and] common, essential properties of hierarchical organizations (Hierarchy Theory - The Challenge of Complex Systems, Braziller, 1973.)

Most complex structures are compositional or control hierarchies. An example of a compositional hierarchy is written language. A word is composed of characters. A simple sentence is composed of words. A paragraph is composed of simple sentences, and so on. An example of a control hierarchy is a management structure, where a manager controls a number of foremen or team leaders, and they, in turn, control a number of workers.

Ira's Hypothesis

The hypothesis at the heart of my PhD dissertation is that the optimal span is about the same for virtually all complex structures that have been competitively selected. That includes the products of Natural Selection (Darwinian evolution) and the products of Artificial Selection (Human inventions that competed for acceptance by human society).

Weak Statement of Hypothesis

In what I call the "weak" statement of the hypothesis, I showed that it is scientifically plausable to believe that diverse structures tend to have spans in the range of five to nine. I did this by gathering empirical data from six domains plus a computer simulation. The domains are:

  1. Human Cognition: Span of Absolute Judgement (one, two and three dimensions), Span of Immediate Memory, Categorical hierarchies and the fine structure of the brain. These all conform to my hypothesis.

  2. Written Language: Pictographic, Logographic, Logo-Syllabic, Semi-alphabetic, and Alphabetic writing. Hierarchically-folded linear structures in written languages, including English, Chinese, and Japanese writing. These all conform to my hypothesis.

  3. Organization and Management of Human Groups: Management span of control in business and industrial organizations, military, and church hierarchies. These all conform to my hypothesis. NOTE: Hierarchy means rank or order of holy beings. I showed that the hierarchy of the angels of the heavenly host, as recounted in Jewish and Christian scriptures and later mystical writings are not typically in the range five to nine and therefore do not comform to my hypothesis. That is a good result because these hierarchies are not competitively selected! They are either the product of human imagination -or- the Creation of God who is not bound by the laws of information theory!

  4. Animal and Plant Organization and Structure: Primates, schooling fish, eusocial insects (bees, ants), plants. These all conform to my hypothesis.

  5. Structure and Organization of Cells and Genes: Prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells, gene regulation hierarchies. These all conform to my hypothesis.

  6. RNA and DNA: Structure of nucleic acids. These all conform to my hypothesis.

  7. Computer Simulations: Hierarchical generation of initial conditions for Conway's Game of Life. (Two-dimensional ). These all conform to my hypothesis.

Strong Statement of Hypothesis

What I call the "strong" statement of the hypothesis is that Shannon's information theory, and Smith and Morowitz' concept of the intricacy of a graphical representation of a structure, can be used to derive a formula for the optimal span of a hierarchical graph.

This work extended the single-dimensional span concepts of management theory and Miller's "seven plus or minus two" concepts to a general equation for any number of dimensions. I derived an equation that yields Optimal Span for a structure with one-, two-, three- or any number of dimensions!

My equation for Span (optimal) is: So = 1 + De. (where D is the degree of the nodes and e is the natural number, 2.71828459.)

NOTE: For a one-dimensional structure, such as a management hierarchy or the span of absolute judgement for a single-dimensional visual, taste or sound, the degree of the nodes, D = 2 . This is because each node is a link in a one-dimensional chain or string and so each node has two closest neighbors. For a two-dimensional structure, such as a 2D visual or the pitch and intensity of a sound or a mixture of salt and sugar, D = 4. Each node is a link in a 2D mesh and so each node has four closest neighbors. For a 3D structure, D = 6 because each node is a link in a 3D egg crate and has six closest neighbors. Some of the examples in Miller's paper were 2D and 3D and his published data agreed with the results of my formula. The computer simulation was 2D and also conformed well to the hypothesis.


In Chapter 6 of my novel, Jim and Luke wonder about the control structure for the 1600 scepter-holders:

After a period of silence, Luke spoke up. “Sixteen hundred people are way too many for there not to be a hierarchical structure,” he began. “If the scepter-holder system was properly designed, according to system science theory at least, there would have to be several grades above the lowest class of scepter-holder.”

He took out his read-WINs and put them on.

“Luke,” I observed, “There’s no WIN coverage in this area …”

“Right,” answered Luke, “But there are processors and software in my read-WINs that allows them to operate independently. I’ve got a program for ‘optimal span’ – you know the ‘magical number seven plus or minus two.’”

“What the heck is that?” I asked, “And why would I care? Where are we going here?”

“Well, back about a century ago, a psychologist named Miller discovered that human perception, such as sight and smell and taste and memory and so on, is limited to five to nine gradations. He called it 'the magical number seven, plus or minus two' or, more scientifically, the 'span of human perception'."

“Another guy, an engineer named Glickstein, about sixty years ago, proved the optimal span for any structure is one plus the degree of the nodes times 2.71828459, the natural number ‘e.’ For a one-dimensional string, the degree is two and the formula comes out to be around six and a third, or a little more. He also showed with Shannon’s information theory that the range five to nine was, at least theoretically, over ninety-six percent efficient and four to twelve was over eighty percent efficient. And that’s not just for control hierarchies like a management chain, but also containment hierarchies in all types of physical systems and even software systems like …”

“You just told me how to build a clock,” I laughed, interrupting Luke. “All I want to know is what time it is! Please, tell me why I give a hoot about the range five to nine or the number six and a third or a bit more?”

“About forty years ago,” continued Luke, “A management expert rediscovered the optimal span theory and proclaimed that all management structures must adhere to it! Did you ever notice how nearly all departments at TABB have either six or seven workers to each manager? How each second-level manager has six or seven first-level managers working for him or her?”

“Yeah, come to think of it,” I replied, “That’s how it is. On the other hand, when I worked in a factory as a college summer job, we had about a dozen guys and gals in our team.”

“Well,” replied Luke, “The lowest level, like a platoon in the military, can have ten or twelve or sometimes a bit more. The theory only applies when the workers have to interact with each other in complex ways, not when they’re doing grunt work.”

“OK,” I replied, “So, as I asked before, where are we going here?”

“If you’d quit interrupting, I’ll tell you,” Luke said good-naturedly, “According to the optimal span program in my read-WINs, sixteen-hundred scepter-holders would break down into about two-hundred-fifty first-level ‘departments,’ each with six or seven scepter-holders and one higher-level scepter-holder ‘managing’ them. The two-hundred-fifty second-level scepter-holders would report to thirty-six third-level scepter-holders who, in turn, would report to six fourth-level scepter-holders who would report to the top dog scepter-holder if there was one.”

“OK,” I replied, “So the scepter-holders are hierarchically organized … Wait a minute, did you say thirty-six?”

“Yeah,” replied Luke, “There should be thirty-six scepter-holders at the third level. What about it?”

“Well,” I began, very seriously, “We have a tradition in Judaism that there are thirty-six ‘tzadikim’ or ‘righteous ones’ for whose sake the world exists. No one knows who they are. When one dies, he, or she I guess, is replaced by another, chosen by God. They are sometimes called the ‘Lamed Vovniks’ because, according to gematria, which we discussed some months ago, the Hebrew letter Lamed stands for thirty and the letter Vuv for six, which adds up to thirty-six.”

“So,” replied Luke with a level of interest that surprised me at the time, “There would be thirty-six especially powerful scepter-holders who would regulate the rest! And they do need regulation. I’m not one-hundred percent pleased with Stephanie’s ethics ...

Ira Glickstein

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Memory, Memory

Excuse me for starting a new post rather than appending to Howard's previous post. After thirteen comments it seems more convenient and better focused.

Howard's post calls dna a kind of memory. I agree that dna could be thought of as a sort of "species memory" for certain purposes, but I don't like this in a more general sense when one looks at the time factor. A current strand of dna is the result of multiple copying errors and mutations that have occurred in the past. Just because something is a RESULT of occurrences in the past doesn't mean that it is a RECORD of that past. I would prefer another approach based upon speculation about evolution.

The closest thing that I can think of to memory at a cellular level is "tropism," which may be the ancestor of true memory. For example single cells may be attracted to sunlight and away from shadow. They are wired to do this based upon natural selection and the nature of their food source. This sort of "pre-memory" or "proto-memory" records the fact that the more food is and has been associated with the light. It isn't true memory, because although it has both permanence and changeability, it isn't addressable. It's more like the set point on a thermostat. Although circumstances can cause a change in the setpoint, the current setting tells us nothing about the history of thermostat's settings.

To better understand the evolution of memory we need to ask why memory might be of value. In the case of photo tropism I'll create an imaginary situation. Suppose that the food versus light intensity relation was also a function of light frequency. A cell might evolve which had different receptors for different frequencies. Each of these receptors would have a different intensity setpoint. Hence, we have stored the information of the best intensity for the cell to propel itself toward, depending on the frequency of the light. The optimal intensity is therefore "addressable" in the sense that only that sensor is activated which corresponds to the particular frequency in the environment. A mechanical analog would be a combination thermostat and humidistat. Suppose we prefer various temperatures in a room depending on the humidity. Imagine that the humidistat selects a different thermostat with a different temperature setpoint depending upon the value of the humidity. We now have true memory. The array of thermostats contains all the temperatures existant and the humidistat makes them addressable according to the humidity. In effect saying, "I remember that when the humidity is x% you like the temperature to be y degrees." If there is any analog to this at the dna level, I believe it would be at the level of expression. A change in environmental conditions in the womb may cause the expression of certain genes to be encouraged or discouraged. Hence, the very same set of genes may produce different results, because of the inhibitors or promoters attached to the dna strand. Those inhibitor and promoter particles (I've forgotten their names) might be thought of as memory.

To summarize might we say that the existence of memory requires that an action shall be taken or not taken, depending upon a stored variable which is addressed by an environmental variable. At a macro human level this would be that a piece of information comes to consciousness from among many possibilities depending upon whether or not one finds the right access path or phrases the right question.

With respect -Joel

Has Language Become Parasitic?

I have been reading about recent studies on the origins of language, The First Word by Christine Kenneally. She tells about many empirically undecidable narratives, but there is clearly no consensus. There is not even evidence that the current technically enhanced use of human language has any evolutionary survival value. We use language for fun and profit, but those concepts do not correlate with biological fitness.

From an evolutionary perspective the survival value of even culturally selected human information is not obvious. Our symbol-based technological culture has given humans power over natural forces that can cure disease, increase lifespan, counter the effects of genetic deficiencies, and unleash weapons of mass destruction. None of these achievements look good from an evolutionary perspective. Even most literature appears to be popular more for its entertainment value than for survival value. Language and its technologies allow local human values to replace natural selection.

5000 years has seen enormous cultural changes largely the result of language, but this is only a moment in evolutionary time, and natural selection operates over indefinitely longer time scales, and it will ultimately decide survival or extinction. We are still entirely dependent on the genetic language to construct the neural architecture that allows natural and artificial languages.

E. O. Wilson claims that for this reason the genes hold culture on a leash. He says the leash is very long, but inevitably values will be constrained in accordance with their effects on the human gene pool. But Dennett argues to the contrary that by allowing language, “genes provide not a leash but a launching pad, from which you can get almost anywhere, by one devious route or another.” I recommend reading Dennett’s paper at,;

also, Lanier’s response to Dennett:, which in my opinion is more of an amendment that does not alter Dennett’s basic argument.

The media, the Internet and cell phones have certainly altered our culture, especially among the young, but I find it hard to find any evidence that survival of the species has been enhanced. Many teachers are convinced that their students’ learning is being subverted by communication overload. Clearly, the most primitive uses of communication for hunting and fighting has survival value, but Ira has not convinced me that religion is more than wishful thinking.

Obviously, there is much more to say on the subject. For discussion, I would suggest there is an optimum level of language usage. Speech should not be entirely free. There should be a cost. What are your views?